They’ll still be taking a flight to their next game, but they’re not heading to Los Angeles, at least not yet, as almost everyone in the free world had them doing entering Monday night’s game against the Orlando Magic.
Instead of heading west to Hollywood, the Celtics are going back to Orlando, after the Magic avoided a sweep with a 96-92 overtime win in TD Garden in the Eastern Conference finals.
You can talk about Dwight Howard finally giving an MVP performance in the East finals. You can cite Jameer Nelson’s dominance in a game the Magic had to have to keep their season alive. You can even bring up that the Magic played with some heart and determination.
But where were the Celtics who had carved up Cleveland in the final three games of their second-round series and had bludgeoned the Magic in the first three games in this series?
That’s what Doc Rivers wanted to know after his team squandered a chance to finish off the Magic and get some rest before a Finals showdown, probably against the Lakers.
Did the Celtics buy into what everyone here was saying, that the East had been won and it was time to bring on the Lakers? They sure played that way.
“I know they heard it, because they had no choice but to hear it,’’ Rivers said. “I don’t know if they believed it. We just didn’t play well. I hope that wasn’t the reason for it. It could have been.’’
The Celtics played as if they were onto their next installment in the great Celtics-Lakers rivalry. And why not? The Magic decided not to show up in Game 3 on Saturday. Not only was Orlando looking like road kill, but the Celtics also had the look of a championship team again. As they reeled off six straight wins, their defense never looked better. Their offense was clicking. Plus, they knew that no team had ever recovered in a playoff series from a 3-0 deficit.
The way we all had it figured, the Celtics weren’t going to subject the locals to what the Bruins did in blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Flyers.
“They have a clear view of what they have to do to win a championship,’’ Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay said before Game 4. “That comes from their experience two years ago. And they were able to tolerate the ups and downs of the season with the idea that if they could get healthy, they could get back to that level. I had my doubts. But I give Doc Rivers a lot of credit for keeping the team focused and pointed in that direction, while also maintaining his confidence that they could do it. That’s not easy, but they’ve done it.
“I think it would have been very easy for them to slip off and say, “Well. It’s just not in the cards for us this year,' ’’ Ramsay added. “But to me, the key was getting Kevin Garnett back. Doc said he was going to do that by increasing his minutes in practice and getting him into the game more. It panned out. Look at how well Garnett is playing. That’s the key to the whole thing.’’
It could still turn out the Celtics go to Orlando and take care of business Thursday. They’ve won four straight games on the road, including the first two in Orlando. But now they’ve given the Magic some life, and that’s a dangerous thing to do.
“Now you're going home with some confidence that you can win, and certainly an understanding of how hard you have to play and how hard you have to fight to do that,’’ Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. “So you've got to understand what it's all about.’’
The Celtics understand it because they’ve won. But it’s more than that now. They’ve got to hope that Rajon Rondo’s back issues are not going to prevent him from getting them to a series against Kobe Bryant. They’ve got to regain their focus and not extend this series unnecessarily.
Maybe it was just a one-game slip-up. But did you see the shocking lack of execution when the Celtics failed to get off a shot at the end of regulation? For most of game, their offense was a fire drill.
“I thought we really pressed too much; each of us wanted to do it,’’ said Paul Pierce, who scored 32 points but couldn’t get off a shot before OT. “We weren’t doing the things that got us the 3-0 lead. We kind of felt we were pressing to get the win.’’
Game 5 will be their next shot. For now, the flight to L.A. is on hold.